Like many boys his age, my 3-year-old nephew loves dinosaurs. Time with “Aunt Bridgett” is usually spent hiding from a tyrannosaurus, searching for a lost brachiosaurus, and sketching various other dinosaurs. In addition to loving these extinct creatures, my nephew also loves the color green. We discussed his love of green in great depth while talking about our favorite colors. In that conversation, I disclosed that, while green is a wonderful color, my favorite is blue. We then engaged in an artistic game in which he played visionary and I created his visions.
He suggested, “Draw a T-Rex.” I asked for instructions such as, “Should he smile? Where should I draw him? How many should I draw? What color should he be?” Based on his suggestions, I sketched a smiling, green tyrannosaurus in the center of the page. I also drew one behind a tree, another in the lower right corner of the page, another under a cloud, etc. In total, my nephew asked me to draw 6 tyrannosauruses, 2 brachiosauruses, 4 trees, a lake, 3 fish, 2 clouds, a pterodactyl, a sun, grass, a rabbit, a lion, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and every member of our family each equipped with our very own backpack. When asked what color to use for each item, animal, and person, guess what color he suggested…
You guessed it! Green!
And of course, I complied. I drew green dinosaurs, green fish, a green sun, etc. Furthermore, he insisted I draw every family member with a green crayon, except one. When it came to me, my nephew made the sweetest suggestion without any prompting: “draw you in blue, because you like blue.”
My nephew revealed the ability to empathize with that statement. As a psychologist armed with the knowledge that empathy predicts success, happiness, and sophisticated moral development, I was delighted.
According to John Medina, empathy requires three basic ingredients:
1. Affect Detection: sensing the emotional reaction of another person; using the example of my nephew, he sensed that the color the blue makes me feel happy
2. Imaginative Transposition: after detecting the emotion, the person essentially “tries on” the emotion to determine how he/she might react in a similar situation; my nephew determined that if he liked blue he would want to be drawn in that color instead of green
3. Boundary Formation: the empathizer realizes that the emotion belongs to the other person; instead of suddenly changing his favorite color to blue or requesting that all of the drawings be done in blue crayon, my nephew maintained his own preference while acknowledging mine
As aforementioned, empathy relates to success, happiness, and moral development. Children capable of empathy typically maintain healthier social relationships, perform better in school, and are generally happier than those with limited abilities. As they age and continue to develop the ability to empathize, such children typically grow into empathic adults. In adulthood, empathy directly links to greater marital satisfaction, satisfying social lives, occupational success, and highly effective parenting skills. In fact, the ability for spouses to empathize with one another protects the marriage from volatile arguments and prevents divorce. Furthermore, empathic parents can better teach their children to experience and express empathy in order to perpetuate the benefits of empathy for subsequent generations.
Empathy also leads to a deeper sense of morality that is based on an implicit sense of right/wrong rather than fear of punishment. To better understand the importance of moral development, consider the following vignette:
received a new doll as a birthday gift. Out of jealousy, Sally is
tempted to break the doll, but decides to leave the doll intact. If
Sally was your daughter, for what reason would you rather she not
break the doll?
(a) Because it is against the rules and Sally does not want to be
(b) Because Sally wants parental approval and to be seen as a “good
(c) Because Sally loves her sister and believes it is important for
Samantha to enjoy her gift, despite feeling jealous.
Philosophers and psychologists have described the development of moral understanding and behavior in a number of ways. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg identified three levels of moral development: (a) preconventional, which is defined by obedience of rules, avoidance of punishment, and the service of personal needs, (b) conventional, which is marked the desire to be seen as a good person by peers and maintain social order, and (c) postconventional, which emphasizes the importance of consensus when determining rules and the individual determination of right/wrong regardless of societal laws. Postconventional moral development is more sophisticated than conventional, which is more advanced than preconventional. Empathic individuals tend to engage in moral reasoning at the postconventional (most advanced) level.
Returning to the vignette in which Sally felt jealous over Samantha’s doll. Many parents would prefer if Sally chose to leave the doll intact because she wanted Samantha to enjoy her gift (postconventional level). Furthermore, most people would be more inclined to trust the adult version of Sally if she engaged in such moral reasoning. If Sally’s parents practice and teach empathy, she will most likely develop the more sophisticated, postconventional level of moral reasoning. It is important to note that most children begin at the preconventional level and need clear rules and consequences to behave appropriately; eventually, however, they can advance to a more sophisticated level with proper guidance.
Knowing that empathy relates to increased success and happiness in all facets of life, you may wonder how to best develop this skill. The two main steps include:
1. Describing the emotion you think you see in the other person
(“You sound angry, is that right?”)
This step requires “affect detection” described above as well as a
vocabulary to label feelings with words. To develop “affect
detection,” practice noticing other people’s emotions and using a list
of feelings words to label those sentiments.
2. Guessing the cause of the emotional change (“Are you angry that I
didn’t call to tell you I’d be late?”)
In order to determine the cause of an emotion, it helps to engage in
both “imaginative transposition” and “boundary formation” described
above by “trying on” the other person’s emotional reaction and
consider the possible causes. Bear in mind that your emotional
reaction may be different than the person with whom you are trying
While great value lies in the ability to experience empathy, the most benefits arise when empathy is directly communicated. For example, a husband can understand the reason his wife is upset, but if he does not directly communicate that knowledge she will not know that he empathizes and she will likely remain upset.
Lastly, once a person has communicated empathy, it is most helpful to then validate the emotion without getting defensive. When empathizing with children, it can also be helpful to teach them to label their emotions with words and, when appropriate, effectively express their feelings.
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